AAFA Explains: Is Salt Therapy Safe and Effective for Asthma?

 

In our second post in our “AAFA Explains” series, we look at claims that salt treatment (also known as halotherapy) can improve your asthma.

This blog series looks at complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) aimed at asthma and allergies. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America wants to guide you as you decide between choices that may be “likely safe” or “potentially unsafe.”

CAM treatments usually do not go through the same rigorous scientific research as new drugs and medical procedures. As a result, whether or not CAM works (called efficacy) is unproven for most treatments.

Salt therapy – such as salt rooms, caves or lamps - falls into that category.

What is salt therapy?

“Salt rooms” are popping up in the U.S., Australia, the U.K. and elsewhere. These rooms charge you a fee to enter, like a spa. Salt crystals coat the rooms and the air is salt-laden as an attempt to mimic naturally occurring salt caves.

The history of natural salt caves as an asthma remedy is ancient. In Russia and Eastern Europe, people with asthma would descend into salt caves. The belief is that breathing in extremely small salt crystals would help open up the airways and assist with the buildup of mucus.

What does science tell us about salt therapy?

Studies evaluating salt therapy for asthma are few.

One of the largest studies to examine the use of salt caves evaluated the therapy for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). COPD is a chronic disease of the lungs caused by smoking.

Researchers reviewed 151 articles about salt therapy. They checked for high-quality studies (randomized controlled trials), like those conducted for prescription medications.

Of the 151 studies, they found just one randomized controlled trial. Researchers reviewed three other studies to include more people. Many people in the studies reported feeling better after undergoing salt therapy. But researchers identified several quality concerns about these four studies.

As a result, researchers were unable to draw any conclusions. Some of the missing or incomplete information included:

  • Whether the subjects had COPD or asthma
  • What medications the patients took
  • How severe their breathing difficulties were at the start of the study
  • The long-term effect of the treatment (for example, people were examined only right after treatment)

In some countries, medical societies have warned that salt caves can have negative effects. For example, the salt cave could induce bronchoconstriction in some people.

Another danger is that if you have asthma, you may stop taking your regular medicine. Halotherapy is expensive. Many patients may struggle to afford both prescription medicines and salt therapy. But long-term control medications are needed to help prevent and control asthma symptoms. Take them as your healthcare provider tells you to, even if you feel well.

Is halotherapy safe?

"If your goal is to find a new way to de-stress, salt caves can do the trick. They’re cool, quiet and relaxing," said Maureen George, PhD, RN, AE-C, FAAN, a member of AAFA’s Medical Scientific Council, and an Associate Professor of Nursing at the Columbia University School of Nursing. "If you’re looking for a natural way to treat your asthma, halotherapy is not what you’re looking for. It has not been rigorously studied, despite claims from ‘experts’."

Patients should also know that inhaling concentrated salts (hypertonic saline) has been proven to irritate the airways, causing cough and mucus, which can make asthma worse for some people.

The bottom line:

Halotherapy, or sitting in a salt room, is not likely to make your asthma better. For most asthma patients, halotherapy is “likely safe.” Since you don't know how you will react, AAFA warns that it is best to err on the side of caution and avoid salt rooms.

Key definitions:

Randomized controlled trials: Participants are randomly placed into two groups. One group does not receive any treatment. The other group receives the treatment under consideration. Researchers follow both groups over time. At the end of the study, they compare results.

Efficacy: Whether or not a treatment works, and by how much.

Reference:

Rashleigh R., Smith S.M., Roberts N.J. (2014). A review of halotherapy for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

Medical Review May 2016.

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Yes the chance of irritation is present, but that 'irritation' is a productive kind, as mucus is being discharged from the airways it blocks.  The Russian doctors are believers in medicine and say that sometimes medicine may initially need to be increased to calm the increased cough, as we experienced with our daughter.  But beyond that it did not occur and her meds were much less needed.

Interesting how this natural therapy is so scary to MDs, but the inhalers which have huge potential side-effects, including death, are prescribed without even informing the patient, who is usually not interested in reading the small print.  

Bottom line:  our health care industry is for-HUGE-profit, so repeat business is the primary goal.  Salt therapy does not fit that model..   

Maxmakc, that's great that salt room therapy has helped your daughter so much! And congrats to her being able to run cross-country now! I recently started biking and am learning how critical it is to have my asthma controlled.

One of the hesitations that many doctors have about salt therapy is that it has not been well studied in a scientific way. There are lots of anecdotal stories of how it helping people. But there is also the potential of it irritating the airways. Since there are no good studies, the potential for being helpful or harmful isn't fully known. The conclusion above is that it's "likely safe" but the overall benefit for treating asthma is an unknown.

Sadly, my daughter's allergist is not at all interested in learning about Salt Room Therapy.  We discovered it through a friend and researched it carefully.  It has trasformed a severly asthmatic child on lots of meds to a very mild case needing very little medication (who even runs cross-country now).  I understand a doctor's hesitation to learn something new, but to scare people away from it is just plain bad doctoring...

Salt Rooms are very beneficial and while MDs in the USA are not interested in them (they have enough on their plate) people who want true respiratory relief and less need of medication should be proactive and do their own homework.  With google it isn't hard. 

My allergies trigger my asthma.  I hope everyone gets better.  This is not fun.. The one place I want to be is outside. I am very limited to being out there.  I am Thankful for for every breath I get to take..

I've been going to pulmonologists, ENTs ,Allergists , holistic options , over and over again for 3o years. Asthma just got worse. Chronic cough. Even went to Cleveland Clinic Cough Clinic. Cough would never stop. Tried all drugs prescribed. Did test for gerd twice. DiD Everything and was compliant. Been going to salt suite near me for past 3 weeks- hour and half day and I HEAR the silence of not coughing ALL the time and lungs feel not as tight. No other changes so I'm sticking to it. Remarkable difference. I live in FL where weather stays the same so can't say related to that. It's the salt room. I'm a skeptic yet after all been through..Including Buteyko which believe is also helpful to follow principles..Yet whether proven or not..I see it is helping. Did years ago yet not as often and not double sessions. I went as was feeling desperate. Not cured by any means and on advair yet that's it. Can even tolerate inhaling advair better now without coughing it out due to reactive airways.

It definitely helps for me and maybe more people who Asthma should be required to live by the ocean. I mean maybe this is something that should really be considered by lawmakers because it is all so hurtful for me dealing with my condition.

Yeah I tried some Himalayan pink salt from the indian grocery store and it seems to be having a really good effect on me because I get a good feeling and feel very rejuvenated..........I guess it helps clear the dust out of my system and breathing better.

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